Books·How I Wrote It

How writing a novel helped John Elizabeth Stintzi connect with their own genderqueer identity

The Ontario-born writer spoke with CBC Books about writing debut novel Vanishing Monuments.
Vanishing Monuments is a book by John Elizabeth Stintzi. (Melanie Pierce, John Elizabeth Stintzi, Arsenal Pulp Press)

John Elizabeth Stintzi is a non-binary writer from northwestern Ontario and currently based in Kansas City, Mo.

The novelist, poet, teacher and visual artist won the 2019 RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers and the Malahat Review's 2019 Long Poem Prize for their work Selections From Junebat. The complete poetry collection, Junebat ​​​​, was published in spring 2020. 

Stintzi is also the author of the novel Vanishing Monuments, about Alani Baum, a non-binary photographer who has not seen their mother since they were 17 years old — almost 30 years ago. When their mother's dementia worsens Alani is forced to run back home and contend with painful memories from the past.

CBC Books named Stintzi a 2020 writer to watch.

Vanishing Monuments is a finalist for the 2021 Amazon Canada First Novel Award.

Stintzi spoke with CBC Books about how they wrote Vanishing Monuments

The nature of memory

"The idea for the novel came from an undergrad class at the University of Manitoba that was about collective memory. The idea stemmed from thinking about collective memory and personal memory. All of these ideas that I grapple with in the centre of the book, especially as a monument against fascism, is from a central image that I studied in that class.

I thought a genderfluid character would be a really useful way to talk about instability in terms of identity.

"It started as a way to talk about identity and memory. It was very much about this idea of mutability and mortality of memory — and then how that intersects with identity. I thought a genderfluid character would be a really useful way to talk about instability in terms of identity.

"The idea of gender moving along a spectrum was very interesting to me. You can't be complacent about identity if you're shifting like that."

Facing self

"I started writing Vanishing Monuments before I had an idea of my identity in terms of queerness and gender. I had, previously, lightly identified as genderqueer, but without really unpacking or understanding what that could mean. I was growing in fascination and interest with gender and the reality of these sort of non-normative gender identities. 

I was growing in fascination and interest with gender and the reality of these sort of non-normative gender identities.

"In writing the book, I wrote a nonbinary genderqueer character as something that I assumed was different, outside of myself and interesting to write thematically.

"But as I was writing and rewriting the book — and as I was researching and reading more trans literature —  the distance between the main character and me got smaller and smaller. I started to identify with them more than I thought I was going into it." 

Prose versus poetry

"I learned about about the practice of research and trying to learn more about queerness through writing both Vanishing Monuments and Junebat — they just happened at the reckoning point of me coming to terms with it. 

"My fiction is a lot more escapist, but on a mechanical level, I don't see too much difference between writing prose and poetry. My prose is very lush and focuses a lot on rhythm, while my poetry is fairly narrative heavy. 

"Fiction is something that I have a lot more discipline over and I can more easily do that day after day. Poetry is this thing that, whenever I write a poem, I assume it's the last one I'll ever write. 

My fiction is the place where I go to take my concerns and details of my life and make them into something bigger in a clean fictional structure.

"I don't approach them that differently, except that my fiction is the place where I go to take my concerns and details of my life and make them into something bigger in a clean fictional structure. Poetry is something where I go to deal with stuff much more directly."

Organically unapologetic 

"I wrote Alani unapologetically. I wasn't really trying to necessarily portray something in a way explains or sets an agenda around who they are and how their gender works. I'd never do that in a novel and didn't do that with Junebat

"I work on the assumption of readers will figure it out. I'm not going to hold your hand — because nobody held my hand. This is just an experience and you're going to be in this person's head. They are not going to necessarily be explaining their gender. 

I work on the assumption of readers will figure it out. I'm not going to hold your hand — because nobody held my hand.

"There are ways in which Alani talks about their identity and the weird ways in which they experience the world; some of that is tied up in their queerness. 

"I don't feel like I need to have my characters explain themselves."

John Elizabeth Stintzi's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

 

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